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Side Quest: Video Games As Art

by Jacob Way, 2011-10-19

Hello members and fans of RPG Watch! My name is Jake and I am an indie developer out of Hawaii. I'm working on a title called, 'I Shall Remain'- a zombie survival RPG. It's a pleasure to write for this website and hope to do so again.

In my first article, I'm going to revisit an ongoing debate on whether or not video game design can be called an art form. I think those in the RPG realm who seek carefully written stories in their games can quickly say 'yes', but it's important to know why we say yes. I'm going to open up the floor with a quote by Roger Ebert. Immediately, I expect everyone on this website to balk at what he says. But what he said needs to be carefully considered.

“I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.”

(Source: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/section?category=answerman&date=20051127)

Though I disagree with Mr. Ebert, he does have a point to be considered. Video games can certainly represent a loss of precious hours in our lives for nothing. For example, I've wasted many hours slaying bodies on Call of Duty with my roommate. I say those are times wasted because I can hardly recall what happened in those hours besides a couple of really good or funny kills. When I look back, it was just an empty memory. I'd sooner remember the face of a girl at a high school dance five years ago than how I managed to torch my roommate with a flamethrower five hours ago. When I look back at how I've lived my life, I hardly recall any times I played a video game.

This is similar to when I look at my bookshelf behind me. With a quick glance, I see a book called Imperial Grunts, by Robert Kaplan. It talked about the American military and its influence on the world. It talked about America's global empire. I don't remember much more than that, bits and pieces at best. I remember it was good.

Try this. Go back and try and remember something you read. How much of it do you recall? Maybe you could write a page about it. Maybe two- maybe even five. That's about it though. Does spending hours and hours reading make for an empty memory? Is it a waste of time? The answer is no, and the same goes for video games.

What happened to me when I read Imperial Grunts? It put me in awe of the work of my brothers and sisters in arms who are sent in uniform to the far corners of the globe. It made me aware that there are Americans in the most desolate places far away from home, like in Mongolia on watch- ready to give us a heads up of Chinese encroachment on sovereign nations.

Now, what happened to me when I played the adventure game Circle of Blood (also known as Broken Sword) by Revolution Software? It's one of the first games I played. I think I was five or six years old. Well, I fought against rogue neo-Knights Templar and solved a murder mystery. I failed many times and got tossed into a river by thugs and died. Most importantly, the game did something more than simply entertain me. At a young age it exposed me to the virtue of never giving up. Pushing on and solving a mystery, or a curiosity- when all those around you tell you not to.

Here's another example, and for a game that doesn't try and teach any virtues: Starcraft. Guess how many service members pull out their Afghan dusted laptops and play it after having an incredibly stressful time fighting the nation's war on terror? Many. Think about how good it is that they have something like Starcraft that can take their mind away from the stresses of their jobs, and into something fun. To me, the ability of Starcraft to do this makes it more important to society than a Picasso painting that no one will deny is a work of art.

Richard Feynman, one of America's most revered scientists said that the key that opens the gates of heaven is the same key that opens the gates of hell. He used this quote in reference to science, and how the understanding of nuclear science can be used to create electricity in one hand, and weapons of mass destruction in the other.

A video game can be a total waste of time, but it can also be really rewarding. Same goes for just about everything in life. My cell phone can be a waste of money as I buy a bunch of silly apps, or it can be a way to keep in touch with my family.

There exist video games that are nothing more than simple forms of entertainment. But as the video game industry grows and matures, so do the expectations of video game audiences. The games that are growing from bare bones stories and mindless action and into incredible works of art are being rewarded with great sales and critic acclaim. Think about Final Fantasy! I think the stories in Final Fantasy are far better than any movie I've seen lately. And have been around for the better part of the century and most of them struggle to keep my attention.

As RPG game enthusiasts, ensure that when you judge a game be sure to consider not just what it is, consider what it does. Don't ask, is it fun, is it funny or is it scary. Games have been around for a while now and need to be better than that. Ask this, does it affect me in a positive way? Did it make a good use of my time? If it does, I think the game you are playing may have just ascended from an entertainment piece to a work of art. If we demand this of game developers, they will push out games that fulfill this. We will see games improve, and we might make Roger Ebert reconsider his position.

Jacob Way is an active-duty Marine Sergeant and the producer of I Shall Remain, a zombie survival RPG. He can be contacted via the contact page on his game's website at: www.ishallremain.com.

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